Digital Humanities: the New Hobby Horse?

In 1916, Tristan Zara issued what came to be known as the Dada Manifesto, a treatise that sought to explain just what Dada is, which is to say that it is nothing (“A hobby horse, a nurse both in Russian and Rumanian: Dada”). The Dadaists were about breaking boundaries, reshaping the way society viewed art. In short they were against the art establishment. And while Dada, a movement that arose following the devastation of World War I, did not survive long after, it gave birth to new movements like Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Neo-Dada. These art movements assailed and subverted the the art establishment. In much the same way so are the Digital Humanities.

In much the same way the Digital Humanities are charting a course that is similar to the Dadaists in that they are part of the counter-culture. By that I mean simply that they are against the established discourse of traditional humanities: linear narratives, the primacy of print based media. Rather, the digital humanities seek to reshape the way in which the humanities are done through intense collaboration, new digital forms and narratives that are complex and dynamic. Moreover this new scholarship can take many forms, ranging from websites to digital archives; regardless of what is created, these new forms seek, in theory, to democratize information in way that traditional scholarship does not.

Although the goals of the digital humanities are noble, plenty of obstacles stand in their way. One such problem is raised by Elizabeth Losh: who is doing the scholarship and for what purpose? Typically, those that are doing digital scholarship are people seeking a tenured position at a university. But since a lot of digital scholarship is collaborative and interdisciplinary, who will ultimately get credit for the work that is done? This might seem arbitrary but it highlights some essential problems with the university, where projects are reviewed by  “print monograph oriented peers.” In an age of limited positions and resources doing digital scholarship might be cutting edge but it also might seem alien to those who would rather deal with traditional projects.

Perhaps the best way to crack the ivory tower is from within. Professors who achieve tenure positions should not rest on their laurels and stop doing digital scholarship but rather continue to produce digital projects. Moreover, they should seek to impart this knowledge on their students, many of whom are already competent with digital tools but who just need to be shown the possibilities that those tools offer for new and exciting scholarship. Or perhaps the answer is outside of the university in the form of activism, or as Losh calls it “hacktivism.” Whatever the answer, the digital humanities, much like Dada did for the arts in the post-World War II era, can change and reshape the established humanities culture. “Our vision is of a world of fusions and frictions, in which the development and deployment of technologies, and the sorts of research questions, demands, and imaginative work that characterize the arts and Humanities merge.”


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